The South Dakota State Jackrabbits won the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship (FCS) over the weekend, dominating nine-time champion North Dakota State 45-21. This was reported as South Dakota State's first NCAA national championship, which isn't entirely true. It was the first D1 championship.
For a journalism class at South Dakota State 45 years ago, I did a writeup on construction of a new shopping mall. I didn't go into it looking for a scoop, but it turned out that the project had not been announced yet and this was big news in the small town of Brookings. My professor used her contacts and the article ended up on the front page of the Brookings Daily Register, the first time I had something published in a real newspaper. My primary source for the story was Sid Bostic, a loan officer at the local bank which was involved in the financing. His claim to fame was throwing in a midcourt shot to win the 1963 NCAA College Division national basketball championship for the Jackrabbits, 44-42 over Wittenburg, Ohio.
With the exception of this NCAA championship, South Dakota State was an unremarkable participant in College Division/Division 2 men's sports over the years. During my college years 1974-78, the basketball team made the tournament once and lost badly to Green Bay. The football team under Coach John Gregory, who sadly passed away a few weeks before the recent championship game, made the D2 playoffs once, losing to Youngstown 51-7 in 1979. Meanwhile, North Dakota State won three College Division football titles by poll from 1965-69 and five D2 championship games from 1983-90. By the '90s, the SDSU men's basketball team made the Division 2 tournament most years but the football team remained mired in mediocrity. When SDSU announced it was going Division 1 in 2004, I thought the school administration and athletic department were suffering from delusions of grandeur and would be condemned to permanent irrelevance in the two major men's sports.
What I realize now is SDSU had no choice. The Universities of South Dakota and North Dakota followed their ag school State cousins to D1 five years later, and with perfect hindsight I believe they should have done it earlier. The SDSU men's basketball team has been an above average mid-major program, winning the Summit League to qualify for the NCAA tournament six times, but not yet accomplished that first March Madness win. The women's team is a mid-major powerhouse, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2019 and winning the WNIT in 2022.
Anyway, football. After some decent seasons during the transition starting in 2004, the climb really began with a 58-10 win over Eastern Illinois in the 2012 playoffs. But by then North Dakota State already had a championship under its belt and took out the Jackrabbits in the next round 28-3. The next few years through 2015, Jacks were unseeded in the 24-team tournament. In 2016, they started getting seeded in the top 8. There were early-round wins, but including that 2012 game, North Dakota State ended South Dakota State's season four times on their way to nine championships through 2021. The most recent of the playoff losses to the Bison came in the 2018 national semifinals.
The last two seasons have been weird. SDSU was the #1 seed in the 2020-21 COVID year but lost by two points in the national championship game to Sam Houston after quarterback Mark Gronowski was lost to injury in the first quarter. In the 2021 fall season, the Jackrabbits beat North Dakota State but also had some bad losses and were unseeded. I know the records may say differently, but prior to this year it seemed like they always lost to UNI even if UNI was terrible. As an unseeded team, they had to travel all over the country with playoff games in all four time zones before falling at Montana State in the semifinals. NDSU recovered from their regular season loss and dominated Montana State 38-10 in the championship game.
This year, the Jackrabbits beat North Dakota State in the regular season again AND this time avoided those bad regular season losses to gain the #1 seed again, escaping UNI by three points with the help of a late penalty. The Jackrabbits have won the last three Dakota Marker regular season games with North Dakota State, but Bison fans would issue reminders about their 4-0 playoff record. Finally that was put to rest with the dominating 45-21 result on Saturday.
They call it FCS in football and mid-major in basketball. It's tough being a fan of a mid-sized school, and is becoming tougher with the transfer portal and NIL money. SDSU's best basketball player Baylor Scheierman decided to return to his home state of Nebraska and play for Creighton of the Big East. My fear is some of the top Jackrabbit football players may be lured away also. I can't help but note that the two running backs who both went over 100 yards in the championship game, Amar Johnson and Isaiah Davis, are both from the state of Missouri. Gronowski is from Illinois. When they were little kids, they didn't dream of playing ball in Brookings. Tight End Tucker Kraft famously resisted attempts to get him into the portal and get some bigger NIL money, but he is from Timber Lake, South Dakota, the most desolate place I have ever been to on Earth. (And I've been to Antarctica.) Downtown Brookings must have seemed like Times Square to him the first time. But he is giving up his remaining eligibility to enter the NFL draft, where he will likely go in the second round. (Update: Third round to Green Bay.) Barring any other major defections, SDSU will be a solid #1 in the 2023 preseason FCS polls.
A longer-term question is whether North Dakota State and perhaps South Dakota State will be lured to an FBS Group of Five conference. For now that is a bigger question up north, but it seems to be percolating south. Teams are shifting around in the Group of Five, and there may be a landing spot somewhere. Travel is a concern, of course, but right now the Dakota teams have to travel to Youngstown for football, and flying to San Antonio is just as easy. I think it is cool to win an FCS championship, but supposedly there is more money in the minor bowls than in the FCS tournament. For South Dakota State, however, leaving the Summit League would mean giving up what is essentially a home court advantage in Sioux Falls in the conference basketball tournament every year. Unless they can find a football-only conference, the anticipated gain in football money may be offset by a loss in basketball money.
The transition away from Division 2 may have begun in 2004, but perhaps it has not ended. My preference would be for the Jackrabbits to pound out a few more FCS championships before taking another leap, but the BIZON may not wait that long to cash in on their reputation as an FBS wolf dressed in FCS sheep's clothing. The two don't have to move up together, but being together in 2004 made that transition easier.
One last thing. One news service reported the recent Jackrabbit win over "their hated rival." I don't think that's accurate. The four Dakota schools are all on the eastern edge of the Dakota land mass near the more populous states of Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. They can't afford to hate each other. They all need each other to succeed, and any hate should be directed toward those other states. I can't find greater joy than any one of the four beating the Gophers on the football field, which NDSU and (strangely) USD have done and SDSU has come close. It probably won't happen, but it would be fun to have Gronowski, Johnson and Davis stick around and beat down Oklahoma State in 2024. Originally they were supposed to play Nebraska in 2024 but COVID blew that up. I don't know if the Sagarin computer ratings (combined FBS and FCS) mean anything, but the 14-1 Jackrabbits finished this year #41 and the 4-8 Nebraska Corndogs were #65 after firing their coach mid-season.